William Chandler Bagley

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William Chandler Bagley (March 15, 1874 – July 1, 1946), was an American educator and editor. A critic of pragmatism and progressive education, he advocated educational "essentialism." Bagley published chiefly on the topics of teacher education, curriculum, philosophy of education, and educational psychology. His experience as teacher and administrator of public schools laid a strong practical foundation for his theoretical formulations regarding improvement in public education. Bagley promoted a core of traditional subjects as essential to a good education, the goal of which is the development of good citizens who will be useful to society. He believed this education should be available to all, and opposed the use of standardized tests that were biased against minority groups. At a time when schools were moving toward progressive education, Bagley's views of the importance of maintaining the authority of the teacher and principal of the school, emphasizing the importance of obedience by students to such authority, provided a strong contrast to the egalitarian views of the progressives. He regarded education as the method of passing on the knowledge of a society to the next generation. However, his view was limited to academic knowledge, rather ignoring the complex of cultural beliefs and behaviors that are commonly accepted by all members of a society, and the important role of parents in transmitting this to their children.


William Chandler Bagley was born on March 15, 1874, in Detroit, Michigan, the son of William Chase and Ruth Walker. His family moved from Massachusetts to Detroit, where his father worked as a hospital superintendent. After graduating from a high school in Detroit, he enrolled in 1891 in the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University). In 1895, he graduated with a bachelor's degree, and started to work as a teacher in a small school in Garth, Michigan.

The teaching experience in Garth helped Bagley decide on his life-calling. He borrowed money and enrolled in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where he earned his master’s degree in 1898. Two years later, in 1900, he was awarded a Ph.D. in education and psychology from Cornell University, where he studied under Edward B. Titchener, one of the leading psychologists at the time. His dissertation was entitled The Apperception of the Spoken Sentence.

In 1901, Bagley worked as a principal in an elementary school in St. Louis, Missouri. Around the same time he married Florence MacLean Winger, with whom he had four children.

In 1902, Bagley began teaching at the Montana State Normal College at Dillon, Montana, as professor of psychology and pedagogy. After few years spent there he moved to New York and taught at the State Normal School in Oswego. In 1909, he was appointed professor and director of the School of Education at the University of Illinois, where he built a strong education department. During his tenure there he founded the Kappa Delta Pi honorary society in education. He developed and refined the basic concepts that became the foundation for the society's ideals.

Bagley became professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University in 1917, and stayed in that position until his retirement in 1939. His work at Columbia was his most productive, publishing numerous books and papers in the area of education.

Bagley founded and/or edited several journals and magazines. In 1905 he founded the Inter-Mountain Educator, which was the first educational journal in the northern Rocky Mountain region. In 1910, he co-founded and edited the Journal of Educational Psychology, and edited School and Home Education (1912–1914). In the period from 1920 to 1925, he was editor of the Journal of the National Education Association. He worked with the Carnegie Foundation to found the Society for the Advancement of Education, for which he edited its journal, School and Society.

He died in 1946, at the age of 72, in New York City.


Throughout most of his career, Bagley worked to professionalize teachers’ professions, and to design more effective methods of teacher education. His Classroom Management (1907) was a guide for young teachers to master the basic skills of effective teaching. He advocated a strict “vertical” model of school management, in which the principal of the school was the utmost authority in the decision-making process, and the teachers were to follow his orders. While the principal oversees progress through the curriculum, teachers need to ensure that each student executes the assigned task. Bagley believed that obedience is the key in this process—the obedience of students to the teachers, and of teachers to the principal.

He viewed the goal of education was to create the "socially efficient individual," one that would become a "useful part of society." Education should lead toward the formation of a just, more equal, and more humane society, he believed.

In his 1925 book Determinism in Education, Bagley criticized the application of intelligence testing in American schools. He claimed that the tests were biased, written for white middle-class students. Minority students did not do well on those tests not because of their lower intelligence, but because of cultural and ethnic differences that did not match the tests' inherent biases.

In his two books Education, Crime, and Social Progress (1931) and Education and Emergent Man (1934), Bagley presented his view of the world, in which teachers hold the highest level in human society. His vision of the future was idealistic, describing a world of well-educated individuals, where crime did not exist and where all citizens enjoyed a healthy life. The key for such a society, according to Bagley, was education.

In Education and Emergent Man, Bagley thought that his theory would replace two popular theories of education—mechanistic psychology, outlined in the work of psychologist Edward L. Thorndike, and extreme pragmatism, promoted by philosopher William Heard Kilpatrick. Bagley was especially critical of Kilpatrick, believing that he and his followers had misinterpreted the work of John Dewey. Bagley himself was both a supporter and a critic of Dewey’s progressive education, believing that progressive education and pragmatism have their advantages, but that overall they have a negative effect on the educational level of society. Opposing all type of extremism, Bagley held that a balanced approach to education is needed, one that takes into account all aspects of education, from all schools and philosophies.

By the end of his career, Bagley founded educational “Essentialism,” a movement in the philosophy of education that strove to retain the valuable aspects of progressive education, but applied them in a traditional way. Bagley emphasized the technique of teaching, in which the teacher always remains the utmost authority in the classroom, keeping discipline as an important component in education. Bagley also never stopped stressing the value of knowledge, and the systematic study of a subject. He believed that physical and social sciences provided the "essential" knowledge that all students must acquire as a part of their general culture. One of the purposes of education is to pass on the accepted values of the society to the next generation. Bagley rejected the “soft” pedagogical approach advocated by progressive educators, which overemphasized individual interests and freedom, and pointed to the need for discipline and tradition.

Bagley held that language and mathematical skills were the core components on which education must focus, therefore any curriculum must be built around these two.


During his career William Bagley authored or coauthored more than 30 books and published more than 400 journal articles and editorials. William Bagley was a conservative educational philosopher who lived and worked during the progressive era. He regarded both philosophical views on educationprogressive and conservative—as having valid points that needed to be taken into account when applying educational philosophy to the curriculum. He opposed extreme viewpoints in educational theory and rejected the idea that only one educational theory can address all issues in education. He advocated a moderate, balanced approach to education.

Educational essentialism, which Bagley propagated, was a reaction to the progressive elements in the early twentieth-century American educational system, which overemphasized freedom and democratic classrooms. As a theory, it is still present in the modern educational system and represents a valuable counterbalance to progressivism.

Bagley created Kappa Delta Pi, an honorary society in education, which is still active in modern times.


  • Bagley, William. [1905] 1979. The Educative Process. Arden Library. ISBN 0849505372
  • Bagley, William. 1907. Classroom Management. MacMillan Co.
  • Bagley, William. 1911. Educational Values. MacMillan Co.
  • Bagley, William. [1911] 2006. Craftsmanship in Teaching. Dodo Press. ISBN 1406504424
  • Bagley, William. [1925] 1969. Determinism in Education. Ayer Co Pub. ISBN 0405013833
  • Bagley, William, and William C. Beard. 1928. A First Book in American History. Macmillan Company.
  • Bagley, William. 1931. Education, Crime, and Social Progress. MacMillan Co.
  • Bagley, William. 1934. Education and Emergent Man. T. Nelson and Sons.
  • Bagley, William. 1937. A Century of the Universal School. Macmillan Company.

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